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Trócaire’s Maurine Akinyi shares what it means to be an African woman: “We are leading Somalia’s health service”

Today, August 31st, marks the International Day for People of African Descent. This day aims to promote the extraordinary contributions of the African diaspora around the world and to eliminate all forms of discrimination against people of African descent.

Maurine Akinyi, Trocaire Somalia Communication Assistant Maurine Akinyi, Trocaire Somalia Communication Assistant

Maurine Akinyi, Trócaire’s Communications Assistant in Somalia, shares what it means to her to be an African woman and her passion for her work with Trócaire.

I remember being four-years’-old in my village in Western Kenya. My brother was about eight at the time, and my sister was a teenager. My brother’s education was the primary concern for my relatives. They weren’t concerned about taking me to school, and my sister was in and out of school (repeating a few classes until my brother caught up with her). I used to think that it was an embarrassment that my sister was forced to attend the same class as her younger brother. Unfortunately, she dropped out and moved to the city in her adolescence in search of a better life.

For me, I owe my education to my aunt. Without having ever attended school, she insisted that I attend and as a jobless wife and mother, my aunt (whom I define as a strong, brave, brilliant, and beautiful human being) worked twice as hard to get me there. Even though I started school 3 years later, I honour my aunt for seeing potential in me. I am proud to say that I was the first person, a woman, in my family, dating back to my patriarchal grandparents, to complete high school and earn a university degree.

‘Educating a girl educates an entire society’

An African woman is the embodiment of a courageous, creative, and beautiful human being. Even though conditions have improved, black women are still expected to do much more than men. She is not only the caregiver of a home, but also the seed of a nation. Even though she is expected to work twice as hard to achieve a meaningful life in society, her brilliance and boldness serve as her defence and tools in the fabrication of a meaningful society.

There are many challenges for African girls and women today.

African girls are often linked to wealth. A wealthy father with more daughters is respected by the society. When they reach marriageable age, the elders begin to discuss dowry. Today, many girls in some African settings, such as the Horn of Africa, are not finishing their studies because they must be married off so that the dowry can sustain their families’ lives.

It is also unfortunate that the beauty and identity of a black woman are defined by her children’s behaviour and morals. Her identity is formed by social and cultural perceptions that force her to conform to social sanctions and societal norms. I recall a conversation between my uncle and aunt. My cousin had made a mistake, and the African father remarked to his wife; “See what your son did?” This is a clear indication that nurturing a home is in the hands of a woman.

An African woman is also expected be ‘proper’ rather than real. A ‘proper’ African woman, according to traditional settings, is expected to keep quiet when men talk, especially male leaders; she is not supposed to question or challenge men’s decisions. In some societies today, a woman who questions or challenges a man is considered an outcast, and she may be embarrassed to speak publicly. So, do we women remain silent out of respect or fear?

Being an African woman in the humanitarian industry

As an African woman, I am glad to be sitting in the humanitarian space on behalf of other African women who have less or limited capacity to voice their needs.

Farhiya, a female Community Nutrition Worker taking women through an Infant and Young Child Feeding practice session Farhiya, a female Community Nutrition Worker taking women through an Infant and Young Child Feeding practice session

I get great joy from seeing women’s and children’s dignity and human rights respected, and for an African girl or boy to have equal opportunity in a safe environment conducive to child development.

As a communications assistant, I’ve had a few interactions with Somali women and children (even though I needed a translator). I admire my female colleagues in Africa, who must deal with security issues and sometimes bear the burden of a mother admitted to a hospital with a malnourished child or an abused girl or woman. In Africa, female workers must still work harder to gain recognition in a male-dominated environment. Some of the protection concerns become difficult to address in some cultures, particularly in the patriarchal environment, where women are still looked down upon.

Unfortunately, in some spaces, women are still thought to be the weaker sex. This can make it challenging for humanitarian women to advocate and speak on behalf of other women who cannot represent themselves in such forums. When assertive African women speak up, they are labelled as aggressive, and when they remain silent, they are labelled as the weaker sex.

Many women have stepped forward to fight for women’s and children’s rights. A good example is the Trócaire Somalia team where women are taking the lead in most of the programmes and departments. Our health and nutrition programme, which is one of the largest, is headed by a woman. Trócaire promotes the rights of women and ensures that their human rights and dignities are respected.

How far we have come

Women in positions of leadership dates to the colonial era, when we served as critical problem solvers, military leaders, freedom fighters and still caregivers at homes such as Fuhnmilayo Ransome-Kuti, from Nigeria, Ida Fiyo Mntwana from South Africa Muthoni wa Kirima from Kenya Hawo Tako from Somalia. Women are at the forefront of advocating for and putting better lives and livelihoods first. Despite progress in women’s leadership, women continue to be underrepresented. We have less than 32% female leaders in our parliamentary representation in Eastern Africa. Other African countries, besides the South African region, have lower parliamentary representation than the global average.

Voices for women and gender equality have evolved over time, and many African countries are now attempting to embrace the third gender rule in leadership. Policies and frameworks are being developed to raise awareness of equality where both men and women of all colours have equal access to economic resources. There will be a time soon where educating a girl will be seen as just as beneficial as educating a boy, there will be a space where gender will not define the salary cap but our skills, and women and the minority will be well represented in the decision-making room.

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